Acting as organizational therapy
Turn tedious drama into playful drama to gain a new appreciation of your workplace
Ask anyone what they dislike about work, and the answer will often be “drama” in one form or another. This generally refers to the subtle but tiresome forms of drama that infect workplaces and negatively impact our feelings about work. Things like gossip, attention-seeking, secret alliances, untruthfulness, manufactured stress, manipulation and other behaviours can leave people wondering why they bother to work at all, and why people just don’t do the work at-hand without all this extra drama. Clearly, dangerous and destructive behaviours like bullying and creating hostile work environments can and should be dealt with swiftly through policy, but what about the more subtle, under-the-radar, everyday actions of people? They can be tedious, and the result is often boredom, dissatisfaction, despair, a feeling of being trapped and “checking out” in all but body. Needless to say, productivity and morale often plummet.
What if we brought an actor’s approach to the everyday drama in our work lives? Actors practice drama as a craft, as something that can be learned and improved, and to some extent as a game or a sport. As I show in my book “Acting: A guided learning journey,” actors work on several levels to understand and create characters. These characters have overarching needs that remain fairly constant throughout the entire story arc of a piece of drama. These might include a need for power, a need for recognition, a need for safety and so forth. Characters also have other more specific objectives that cover individual “scenes” and interactions with other characters. The basic actor’s character calculus goes like this:
In short, the actor wants the character to “win the scene” and get what they want or need. The tools the actor uses to achieve this on behalf of the character are called “actions.” Actions can be thought of as “verbs” that support a psychological or emotional intention. To beg, to command, to flatter, to frighten, to cajole are all examples of actions. Actions are the stock-in-trade of the actor. The exact same lines can be delivered with different actions behind them, and the response they provoke will be different as well. This is why we can watch our favourite dramas played by different actors again and again, because each actor’s portrayal of a character will be unique, despite the constraints of speaking the same lines each performance. The famous acting instructor Stella Adler said: “In your choices lies your talent.” In other words, the actions an actor chooses for their character to play is the secret sauce of great drama.
What if we choose to approach our workplaces consciously as places of drama or theatre, and use the tools and crafts of the actor to play each scene in a way that supports not only our own objectives, but also the overarching needs of the organization and ultimately the customer? What if we take control of workplace drama and make it fun, make it a craft or a sport? Let’s explore some ways in which we can use the tools and craft of the professional actor to approach everyday workplace drama, and turn it in our favour, having productive fun in the process.
If we use the tools of an actor to approach the workplace, we can turn a psychologically and emotionally draining situation into a more fun one, one that we have more control over and that is less damaging to the core of our being. By being able to factor in drama as an essentially human part of work, we can learn to master it better as a craft and have it be more of a piece of theatre. Clearly, we should get out of situations that are damaging to us, and overtly harmful behaviours in a workplace need to be dealt with and removed, but for the everyday grind of people just being people - irritating as people tend to be - a little conscious theatricality may just give us a new lease on working and bring some fun back to our work. Try it out!
Robert David Duncan is an actor, director, coach, trainer and business thinker. He holds an MBA, a doctorate in business leadership and is a graduate of the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. He has made over 30 films and has won several awards. He is also the author of several books on both business and creative topics, and teaches and coaches business leadership, acting , directing and filmmaking.
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.